Monday, April 14, 2014

(Just Like) Starting Over

Today marks a new beginning.You may already have noticed that there have been some changes around here. The blog has a new name. There's a new design across the top.  And there are other bits and bobs you'll notice as time goes by.

Why all these changes? It's mainly to do with changes I've been making in my life, changes I felt had to be reflected here.

So here goes... I've got a lot to tell you.

Four years ago this coming November, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). There had been an occasion three years prior to that when MS was suspected but the symptoms were too inconclusive for a definite diagnosis. No such luck in 2010. That summer, my right side stopped working properly. It was weak and didn't do what I asked of it. I couldn't drive. I couldn't carry things without dropping them.  I often missed the key I was aiming for when typing. And I was in constant pain.

Following a series of tests, I got the diagnosis I'd been dreading and was suddenly very frightened. I've been pretty healthy for most of my life and had always assumed I'd live to be one of those old ladies who inspire you with their vim and vigour. This vision of my future was displaced by images of wheelchairs and of me being looked after by others and I began to panic.

Telling others made me panic further. When I told my family and friends I could see shock and pity reflected in their eyes. I'd never been on the receiving end of pity before and it was not a place I wanted to be.

So I decided to keep my diagnosis relatively secret. Dingle is a small town where everyone talks about everyone else. I didn't want to be thought of as someone who was sick. I wanted to be seen as the same person I'd always been: someone strong, not someone weak and definitely not someone to be pitied.

I didn't have a lot of professional support at that time. My neurologist responded to all my questions with the exact same answer: 'the outcome is different for everyone; nobody can tell what will happen to you'. Everything seemed beyond my control.  My future - which had always shimmered brightly and enticingly in the distance - suddenly became a much darker and more ominous place.

When I turned to the internet, what I found there frightened me even more. Worst case scenario after worst case scenario: people in pain, people who were disabled, so many stories of suffering... I couldn't bear to read about it and didn't want to think that this could be me.

Instead I waited for my symptoms to subside, started taking medicine and put MS to the back of my mind. I carried on as normal and willed myself into forgetting about my diagnosis.  

Life allowed me to do this too. In fact, it allowed me to become busier than ever; even opening a café. So busy that I didn't have time to think about being or becoming ill.

That was until I got a wake-up call from a friend who rang one day to tell me that she too had been diagnosed with MS. She was devastated. I could see fear in her eyes. She could hardly speak for crying. And in her face were all the worries I'd been repressing for so long.

As she struggled with her diagnosis I too started to accept my own and I am so grateful for her example. Her symptoms at that time were worse than mine but her attitude was so much better. She discovered Dr George Jelinek and his diet and lifestyle changes which have been proven to minimise the long-term impact of MS (and a whole host of other conditions too). The changes are all super healthy ones, combining a whole-food plant-based diet with regular exercise and positive mental and emotional health.

So, for the past year or so, I've been trying to implement these changes. It hasn't been easy but it's why I'm writing this post today. For months now, I've been cutting out dairy, meat, certain types of oil, fried foods and chocolate (I still sob inwardly at the loss of chocolate) but I haven't reflected that here. That's felt dishonest and because I'm feeling healthy and full of hope for the future, it's also felt unfair. 

When I first started this diet, I saw it as restricting the choice of foods available to me and for a while, I didn't have the same sense of enthusiasm about what and how I ate. But slowly, a whole new world of food came into view. There are so many different ingredients out there and from what I've sampled so far, the fact that they are healthier than what I ate previously doesn't mean they are any less delicious.

So, it's a time of new beginnings. Because my diet is changing, what I post here will inevitably change here too. But don't imagine that things will change too much - it's still delicious in Dingle!

These changes start today and as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Sharon x

Spring has sprung in Dingle and it's a time of new beginnings for us all

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Road trip up north

It’s a new year and soon it’s going to be a time of new beginnings on this blog. Following research I’ve done (and am still doing) into a health condition I’ve got, I’m changing the way I eat. And because this blog has always been about my personal relationship with food, it will change to reflect that. I haven’t quite decided what these changes will be so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you about a short trip my boyfriend and I took to Northern Ireland late last year.
A cold but beautiful November day on the Antrim coast
My visits to Northern Ireland have been rare. It may be a legacy of all those years of troubles but I’m guilty of having very little personal knowledge of just what life is like up there.  I visited a friend in Belfast in 1998 and what I remember most from then was the sense of hope that was palpable on the streets of the city. The peace process was new and it seemed people were finally allowing themselves to feel positive about the future.

I’d hardly visited since then so when we got an opportunity to do so in November, I was enthusiastic to discover more about Northern Ireland.

Here are some highlights from our trip:

1: We used Airbnb for the first time. Our hosts were Adrian and Sheldon. Their penthouse (!) apartment complete with hot tub (!!) is modern, comfortable and warm - almost as warm as their welcome. Adrian brought us on a whistle-stop tour on the evening of our arrival; pointing out places he thought most of interest in his city. Staying with locals really added to our time in Belfast. It felt as though we got under the skin of the place more than we might have done had we stayed in a hotel.

2: Before going to Belfast, I'd read rave reviews of a new restaurant called Ox and booked us in for dinner so we could check it out for ourselves.

We liked almost everything about it. We liked the stripped-back décor; all high ceilings, huge windows overlooking the River Lagan, simple wooden tables and chairs and dimmed lighting accentuated by plain white candles on each table.
We liked the short menu from which it didn't take us long to choose our dishes. We liked the staff, all of whom were chatty, friendly and professional.

And then there was the food.  My starter of romanesco, squid, oyster and chorizo was a work of art, both on the plate and on the palate. Crunchy romanesco, succulent squid, a saline hit from the oysters and such depth of flavour from sauces of chorizo and dark squid ink - I can taste it still.

My boyfriend had rich, sweet confit shallot, earthy girolle mushrooms and crunchy chicken skin sitting atop some cheesy spelt risotto.  Again, this was a marvel of texture and tastes and we were both immediately won over by Ox.

For mains, I had the brill, carrot, scallop, seaweed and shellfish butter. My brill had a caramelised topping that was slightly sweet and crunched like crème brulee. The fish was perfectly cooked. The scallop was juicy. And the sauce was a serious burst of flavour.
My boyfriend had the rabbit saddle, apricot, pistachio and braised pork cheek and immediately declared it one of the best things he had ever eaten.

Seriously high from what we had eaten so far, we moved on to desserts. These were slightly disappointing. So disappointing I forgot to note exactly what they were. I had something chocolate-y and my boyfriend had crumble. Now, I'm not saying they were bad because they weren't. They just didn't match the exalted standard of the rest of the meal.

3: We took a black taxi tour of the city with Mark.

A local raised right in the heart of Belfast, in a house that has since been razed to the ground to create breathing space between loyalist and nationalist communities; he told us his own personal story of the troubles as well as recounting the long and contested history of Northern Ireland as he drove us to see murals: 

And peace walls (which despite their poetic name are there to keep communities protected from each other and thereby divided):

And memorial gardens to people lost in the fighting:

If you're ever in Belfast and have even the slightest interest in history, take one of these tours. Our heads were spinning with information by the time we finished but we gained such an insight into what life was like for ordinary people during that time and the impact it still has on them today. 

4: We visited St George's Market on Saturday morning. Bursting with stalls selling all sorts of food, bustling with people shopping and eating; and resounding to musicians busking; there is so much to see, do and taste here.

Two beautiful girls were selling their dad's delicious range of breads:
Northern Ireland has a reputation for the sheer variety of its breads and we had to sample a few.
Some arts and crafts

Musicians performing 

Local baking hero Cakes by James  
We tried both types of brownies and a blueberry and lemon slice - yum!
5: The drive along the Antrim coast is a stunning one, with views at every twist and turn in the road and occasional glimpses of Scotland on the horizon. 

6:We stopped to cross the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, which I'm pleased to say didn't cause my nerves to flutter too much.

We loved the little island and the fisherman's hut on the other side and both agreed that some enterprising person should restore the hut and rent it out by the night. I can't imagine a more romantic, rain- and wind-battered place to stay...

7: And then we arrived at the Giant's Causeway. Having never been here before I was very excited and I'm pleased to say it lived up to its billing. There's a sense of ancient magic about this place. Standing on its stones, I felt connected to the earth and its energy in a way I don't think I've ever felt before. I felt grounded in the very best possible way.

The beautiful patterns on the stones are mesmerising
The following morning, after a brief stop at Dunluce Castle, we headed home. We've vowed to go back, because there is a lot more of Northern Ireland yet to see. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

What Sharon did next

I've been slowly coming around to the change of pace in my life since I closed the café a whole 42 days ago.

Since then, I've spent some time resting here:
Our dog Jimmy likes resting here too
I've cleared the café of all I had put into it.   

I've spent lots of time sitting here, slowly getting back into my writing work.

I've had time to walk the dog, who is absolutely thrilled with the new arrangement.

And I took a trip to Belfast and Northern Ireland too, the highlights of which I will share with you in my next post. 

I hope you're all well and heading into the end-of-year festivities in fine form.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The sense of an ending

I closed the café on November 2nd. That was the last day I made food and served it to customers.

Since then, I’ve been slowly clearing the café of everything I had filled it with over the course of the past two years and today, I finally brought out the last box and closed the door on what had been the adventure of my lifetime. 

I knew closing was the right thing to do for all sorts of reasons and yet closing that door and turning my back on that space was heart wrenching. I’d put so much time and energy and so much of my self into making that space mine, into making it Béile le Chéile, that there was a huge sense of loss in walking away. Every box I filled and carried to the car emptied that space of what I had made it and consigned it to the past, made it something I once did and no longer do, something I created that now no longer exists.

Although I am filled with relief and overcome by the sense of freedom involved in walking away from a venture that had taken over every waking hour of my life, I am still sad. Very sad.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Things are going to change around here

Remember how excited and nervous I was when I made this announcement? Well, right now I'm excited and nervous too but it's for precisely the opposite reason.
I'm closing the café or at least the current incarnation of Béile le Chéile. I may reopen in another location, in another format or at another time but for now, I'm calling it a day.

I feel mixed emotions and it's taken me months to arrive at this decision. I've put my heart and soul into Béile le Chéile and for the most part, I've absolutely loved cooking for and meeting my customers. It's hard to walk away and admit that something I'd always harboured as a dream is no longer going to be a reality.
But for now, I know it's the right thing to do. Running a café is exhausting, particularly in a seasonal town like Dingle. My boyfriend said something interesting the other day. He remembered how I used to be tearful all the time when I first opened the café, so overwhelmed was I by the exhaustion I felt.  "You don't cry as much now," he said. (Phew for that!) "But I think you're just as tired. You've just learned to deal with it better."

I think he's right and I don't want to be that tired anymore. I want to have more time to devote to other things that interest me in life. Instead of working 12-hour days and coming home too tired to do anything other than eat and sleep, I want to read, spend time with friends, have the time and energy to really talk to people, walk my dog, cook and bake at a less frenzied pace and generally enjoy my life more.

I love running a café and I've gained so much from the experience. The café won a John and Sally McKenna Award and a Georgina Campbell award and so many of our customers had such heartening things to say about their visits to Béile le Chéile
But right now, it's not worth the sacrifices I'm having to make for it. I may come back to it in time. I'm still interested in food and I might decide to pursue that interest in a different way. But for now, things are going to change in my life. And I'm adamant that those changes will be very much for the better.

Thanks so much to everyone who helped make Béile le Chéile a success these past two years. I had such great staff, without whom the café wouldn't have been such a warm and welcoming place. My family and friends rode in to help avert disaster on plenty of occasions. And I had wonderful customers, who made everything worthwhile.

Our last day is this Saturday, the 2nd of November. In the meantime, go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir agus slán go foill.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Running a café? All you do is saunter around all day with no worries!

I must admit to being a little disappointed. I had promised myself that this year would be different. No matter how busy things were in the café, I would be more organised and maintain enough time to write a weekly post for this blog.
Well, two whole months since my last blog post, all I can say is 'So much for that!'

Béile le Chéile has been open for over a month and it's been quite the whirlwind ever since. It's taken me all this time to get back into the rhythm of cooking, baking, ordering, organising staff and the general rushing about that is running a café.

That's why I laughed out loud when I read the results of a survey in The Irish Times last weekend. They asked random people what they thought the best jobs in the world might be and one person was quoted as saying:
'I'd like to run a café. You'd saunter around all day with no worries.'

Oh, how I laughed. It's funny that people think that all you have to do to run a successful café is turn up in the morning, turn on the coffee machine and start serving customers. They really have no idea of how much work goes on behind the scenes.

In a way, that's testament to the good work done by so many people who work in the food industry. Like serene swans who are swimming furiously under the surface, they make it look simple. The relaxed smiles on their faces as they serve up delicious food belies the amount of hard work and effort they've put into making it. 

One day, I hope to become someone who makes running a café look simple. And I actually think I'm getting there. This time last year, I was hardly sleeping at night as all I could do was worry about what I'd got myself into and my waking hours away from the café were spent in floods of tears because I was so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work facing me every day.

But this is not at all how I feel this year. I'm sleeping well. There have been no tears. I feel much more under control and am far happier. I'm still daunted by the thoughts of high summer and the amount of work involved in making a visit to Béile le Chéile the enjoyable experience I'd love for it to be for every single customer. But I think that I can do it.

One day, someone will look at me and think I've got the dream job. Sauntering around without a worry... Yeah, that'll be me.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Comfort eating on a Sunday afternoon: chocolate, cheesecake and raspberry brownies

I'm finding it hard to stay positive these days. Everywhere I look and listen, it seems as though the cost of living is creeping ever higher while people are struggling to make do with falling incomes. It worries me that I'm about to open the café for a second season at a time when people's discretionary spending has never been so limited.

When I feel anxious or pessimistic, I often turn to food for comfort. Food is great like that, isn't it?  Sometimes, all you need when you're feeling under the weather is a bowl of broth that is brimful of vegetables while (on the - ahem! - completely other end of the healthy spectrum) a serving of this decadent treat can make you believe that all is indeed well with the world.

Chocolate, cheesecake and raspberry brownies - an edible way of putting the world to rights!
At first glance, this recipe may scare you. I'll admit that there's a lot of sugar in it but this brownie is so rich that you'll only eat a little of it at any one time so you needn't feel too guilty (and I needn't worry about giving you all diabetes!)

Brownie recipe:
225g unsalted butter
100g chocolate (I use 75g of 70% chocolate and 25g good milk chocolate)
75g cocoa powder
450g caster sugar
4 eggs
A pinch of salt
100g self raising flour

Cheesecake recipe:
225g cream cheese
100g caster sugar
1 egg
3 tablespoons of flour

100g raspberries
  • Line a brownie tin with parchment paper and set the oven to 180 C/350F.
  • Melt the butter, chocolate and cocoa powder in a pan over a medium heat, stirring well to combine.
  • Beat the sugar and the eggs along with a pinch of salt until light and airy.
  • Add the chocolate mixture and beat to combine.
  • Fold in the flour.
  • Make the cheesecake by mixing all of the ingredients together until well combined.
  • Pour 3/4 of the brownie mixture into your brownie tin. 
  • Pour the cheesecake mixture over that.
  • Add the remaining brownie mixture.
  • Using a skewer, swirl both mixtures together to create a pretty marbled effect.
  • Scatter the raspberries on top, pressing them down into the mixture a little so that they don't dry out too much or burn while cooking.
  • Bake in the oven for 40 to 45 minutes.  The mixture should look something like this and an inserted skewer should come out wet but not sticky.
  • Allow to cool and cut into small slices. I cut mine into 24 slices. 
Make yourself a cup of tea and give yourself time to savour this special treat. Chocolate, cheesecake and raspberries; there could surely be no better comfort in these financially tough times.